On Not Understanding in Belize: English vs Kriol

Posted By: Marty

On Not Understanding in Belize: English vs Kriol - 02/14/12 03:21 PM

u no taim hyaa weh Ai di chrai tel yu: On Not Understanding in Belize

A sign written in Kriol protesting a proposed port for cruise ships in the town of Placencia. Photo courtesy of Doug Reeser.

When a good friend of mine who is conducting ethnobotanical research here in Belize heard that I would be writing this column about fieldwork for Anthropology News, she asked if I had read Paul Rabinow’s classic, Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco. Somehow, through all of my years studying anthropology – ten years from my bachelor’s through my doctoral studies – I hadn’t been asked to read the book, and it never found its way across my path. A little embarrassed, I had to reply that no, I hadn’t read it before. She insightfully thought that Rabinow’s reflections might provide me with some inspiration, and at least offer some food for thought. On her last trip to the field, she brought me a copy.

After reading the book, I think it holds up to its reputation as a classic on fieldwork, and besides his occasionally surprising revelations, Rabinow also offers a number of topics that would be good for everyone working in the field to reflect upon. From the importance of the experience of otherness to the politics of communities, the book is full of issues of which to be aware. For Rabinow, being able to communicate effectively in Arabic featured centrally in his fieldwork experience, and this challenge got me thinking about how language may be affecting my fieldwork and data collection here in Belize.

I’ve been working in Belize (on and off) since 2007, when I came here for the first time to conduct research for my MA and MPH degrees. There was then (and continues to be) a small part of me that wished I was working elsewhere in the region, mostly so that I could continue to learn Spanish. I guess I would say it was sort of an intellectual disappointment to be conducting my research in English. Over time, I have come to discover that that disappointment is somewhat misplaced.

English is the official national language of Belize. It is the language used in the schools, it is the language heard on the television, and it is true that most Belizeans today speak English. However, English is not always a Belizean’s first language, it is not always the language spoken in the homes of Belize, and it is not the language that is necessarily heard on the street. Just like the diversity of people here, there is an equally diverse set of languages.

On any given day here in the south of Belize, I can hear up to seven different languages. I walk through the market and I may hear Q’eqchi’ or Mopan spoken by the Maya women selling vegetables, local fisherman chatting in Garifuna while hawking their fish, vendors selling plastics and household goods speaking Spanish, and I even occasionally hear Plautdietch among the few Mennonite farmers that come to town on market days. The small grocery store nearest my house is run by a family from China, and Chinese can be heard there as well as in the many Chinese food restaurants around town. And I can’t forget English, most audible from American tourists or volunteers walking around town.

Most of these different languages are only spoken among friends and family, so typically they are only overheard, and people easily switch to English when talking with me. However, there is one language that is heard above all others, and one that makes this language experience very strange at times: Kriol. Kriol is a Belizean creole based on English and a number of African languages. According to some, it is the most widely spoken language here in Belize, and after spending eight months here, I would tend to concur.

Kriol is everywhere, especially here in the main market town in the south of the country. It is a language that is complex and foreign, yet familiar at the same time. The familiarity stems from its English base, such that every sentence might have a word or two in English. However, unless you know Kriol, you can’t understand most of what is being said. Take the title as an example: “Yu no taim hyaa weh Ai di chrai tel yu.” If you say this out loud, you may get parts of it, and it could be translated literally as “you never hear what I’m trying to tell you.” However, it means something more like “you don’t understand me” – a slight difference perhaps, but an important one. As a native English speaker, hearing Kriol was one of the stranger sensations I have had abroad: hearing someone speak to me and getting some of it, but quickly realizing that despite the sprinkling of English, I have no idea what is being said to me.

It has taken a while for me to “get” Kriol. Since most people speak English, they almost always speak in English with me. However, as an anthropologist, I get to spend time hanging out with people. I spend time with them in their everyday moments, and during these times, people easily slip into their “normal” language, in this case, Kriol. I still don’t speak in Kriol – that would feel somehow phony when everyone speaks English just as easily – but I am finally picking up most of the conversations (and jokes!) being held around me.

Along with that understanding of Kriol has come another realization, one that I probably should have had before I even started my research. As with any language, the way Kriol is used reflects on how its users view the world around them. And while English is the official language in the country, Kriol is probably used more frequently in peoples’ everyday lives. Coming here for long-term fieldwork, I assumed that knowing English would suffice in understanding the things I had come here to study. Having been here for a while now, I know that working in English will provide me with adequate and even insightful data, but I do believe something will be missing. While I don’t quite have my finger on it yet, I’m pretty sure that something will be revealed as I continue to explore this place through its other first language – Kriol.


douglas carl reeser is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, and is a contributing editor at Recycled Minds. He is currently working on his dissertation research in southern Belize, examining the intersection of State-provided health care with a number of ethnic-based traditional medicines. He also loves food.


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